Summoning the Sun with Britten’s Spring Symphony

Hymn to the Sun. engraving by William Miller 1872

Hymn to the Sun. engraving by William Miller 1872

Each day now, as I look out over the hills, I mark the snow’s receding and watch as deer forage in brown patches that emerge. As I look, I’m gauging when the local rail trail might be free of snow so I can jog and walk outside, rather than eyeing my treadmill balefully (or perhaps the treadmill is balefully eyeing me). Every now and then, but not as often as I should, I get on it, with considerable empathy for the hamster on her wheel.

I think of the fellow at the customs desk in Finland who sized me up and said, with deadpan wit, “For the real Finland, you must come in winter.” I remember Sibelius describing a jolly day with the family, out sledding in the freezing cold. While I grew up with that sort of weather (though not the long dark), that customs fellow had it right: when it comes to winter, I don’t have what it takes.

I think also about how often seasons as metaphors are misused or misapplied. The commentary on Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti is loaded with allusions to Shostakovich as in the “autumn of his life.” It’s as if Shostakovich, in response to illness and approaching death (about which, it should be noted, the “approaching” might only have been possible to know after the fact) had no choice but to turn inward in dark rumination. Yet what I hear most in the Michelangelo Suite is not someone gloomily navel-gazing, but a composer who, fully alive and in command of his process of creating, seeks the highest and best musical expression for the poems he’s chosen to set. Then it’s up to us, as listeners, to make our own meanings of the work.

While not quite so beset with biographical and historical overlay as that of Shostakovich, the music of Benjamin Britten is subject to plenty extramusical gloss. A favorite theme running through the commentaries is lost innocence, and Britten’s Spring Symphony doesn’t escape. It’s not that lost innocence isn’t present in Britten’s work: one need look no further than the line Britten borrowed from W.B. Yeats’s Second Coming for The Turn of the Screw: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Certainly, the Spring Symphony is life-like, with such gorgeous multiplicity of expression it’s neither sensible nor advisable to tease out strands and set them in tidy rows. But when it comes to attempts to uncover a heart of darkness in its finale (see, e.g., Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life For Music 281), I want to shout, “Leave off! Let the guy (and us) be plain old happy, if you please!”

Sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe, and when I listen to that finale, what I hear is a great bloom of joy.

Elizabethan Lyrics ImageTo choose poems for the Spring Symphony, Britten’s “initial resource was a battered copy of Elizabethan Lyrics from the Original Texts, edited by Norman Ault, which he had possessed since 1932.” [Powell 279] (The Ault book, though a later edition—3rd Edition, 1949—may be found here.) Britten wrote of the Spring Symphony:

I wrote the Spring Symphony in the Autumn and Winter of 1948/9, and finished the score in the late Spring of 1949. For two years I had been planning such a work, a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the re-awakening of the earth and life which that means. Originally I had wanted to use medieval Latin verse and had made a selection of fine poems; but a re-reading of much English lyric verse and a particularly lovely Spring day in East Suffolk, the Suffolk of Constable and Gainsborough, made me change my mind.

The work is written for a large orchestra, mixed choirs and boys’ choir, three soloists (soprano, contralto, and tenor) and a cow-horn. It is in the traditional four movement shape of a symphony, but with the movements divided into shorter sections bound together by a similar mood or point of view. Thus after an introduction, which is a prayer, in Winter, for Spring to come, the first movement deals with the arrival of Spring, the cuckoo, the birds, the flowers, the sun and “May month’s beauty”; the second movement paints the darker side of Spring — the fading violets, rain and night; the third is a series of dances, the love of young people; the fourth is a May-day Festival, a kind of bank holiday, which ends with the great 13th-Century traditional song “Sumer is i-cumen in,” sung or rather shouted by the boys.

I recognize one shouldn’t always trust the composer’s program notes, but these, I buy.

Will Kempe's Nine Days Wonder: Morris dancing from London to Norwich 1600

Will Kempe’s Nine Days Wonder: Morris dancing from London to Norwich 1600

Listening List

Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony, Op.44 (October 1948 – June 1949)

On Spotify (London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, St. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys Choir, soprano Sheila Armstrong, tenor Robert Tear, and mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker. Conducted by André Previn)

On YouTube (Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Emanuel School Boys Chorus, soprano Jennifer Vyvyan, tenor Peter Pears and contralto Norma Procter. Conducted by Benjamin Britten)

Finale: London, To Thee I Do Present 

Complete Spring Symphony

A Closer Listen

The Spring Symphony is written for soprano, contralto, and tenor solos, mixed chorus, boys’ choir, orchestra, and cow horn.

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd doubling Alto Flute and Piccolo), 2 Oboes, Cor Anglais, 2 Clarinets in B-Flat, Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, Double Bassoon, 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in C, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Cow Horn, Timpani, 2 Harps, Strings, and Percussion (xylophone, vibraphone, bells (A, B-Flat), whip, block, castanets, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, gong (from the score)

The texts of the settings may be found here, and a list of the settings appears below.

Part I

  1. Introduction (Shine out, Anonymous, 16th century)
  2. The merry cuckoo (Edmund Spenser, ca. 1552–99)
  3. Spring, the sweet spring (Thomas Nashe, 1567–1601)
  4. The driving boy (Whenas the Rye, George Peele, 1556–96, and The Driving Boy, John Clare, 1793–1864)
  5. The Morning Star (On May Morning, John Milton, 1608–74)

Part II

  1. Welcome, Maids of Honour (To Violets, Robert Herrick, 1591–1674)
  2. Waters above (The Shower, Henry Vaughan, 1622–95)
  3. Out on the Lawn I lie in Bed (W. H. Auden, 1907–73)

Part III

  1. When will my May come? (Richard Barnefield, 1574–1620)
  2. Fair and fair (Song of Oenone and Paris, George Peele, 1556–96)
  3. Sound the Flute! (Spring, William Blake, 1757–1827)

Part IV

Finale (London, to thee I do present, Francis Beaumont, 1584–1616/John Fletcher, 1579–1625, and Sumer is i-cumen in, Anonymous, 13th Century)

The Spring Symphony is, among other things, fully loaded with gorgeous orchestral effects. An analysis from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra chorus may be found here. The comments below are drawn from several sources, including the essay and extensive, albeit rudimentary, consultation with the score. Those who know better should not hesitate to correct any errors.

Part I

  1. Introduction (Shine Out, Anonymous, 16th century; since determined to have been written by George Chapman as part of The Masque of the Twelve Months. [citation 1citation 2]) (mixed chorus and orchestra)

Shine out, fair sun, with all your heat,

As the first theme sounds on timpani and harp, listen for the xylophone to strike three times, followed by a resonating chord on vibraphone (just before the chorus enters on “Shine out”). You’ll hear the vibraphone sound periodically throughout the setting. Only Shine out and the finale contain passages for full orchestra playing together (tutti), and the orchestral color, with evocative roles for woodwind and brass, is richly varied throughout.

  1. Cuckoo, from The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    Cuckoo, from The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    The merry cuckoo (Edmund Spenser, ca. 1552–99) (tenor soloist and 3 trumpets)

The merry cuckoo, messenger of Spring,
His trumpet shrill hath thrice already sounded;

In marked contrast to Shine out, The merry cuckoo is set for tenor and three trumpets. Listen for the cuckoo call on the trumpets, in minor thirds. [ASO Essay 3] (For a grandly “anoraky” discussion about the interval of the cuckoo call in nature and music, click here and follow the comments.)

  1. Spring, the sweet spring (Thomas Nashe, 1567–1601) (all soloists, mixed chorus, orchestra, including a string quartet within the orchestra, with no percussion except timpani)

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king;

Spring, the sweet spring swings open to include a much larger vocal and orchestral palette. Listen for the soloists on the birdcalls. For entertaining speculation on identifying the calls “ jug-jug, pu-we, and to-witta-woo,” click here for the entry in Notes to Palgrave’s Golden treasury of songs & lyrics, Books 1-4.

  1. From The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    From The Nursery, Volume 17, No. 101, May, 1875

    The driving boy (Whenas the Rye, George Peele, 1556–96, and The Driving Boy, John Clare, 1793–1864, from The Shepherd’s Calendar, May) (soprano soloist, boys’ choir, winds, tuba, tambourine, and strings)

When-as the rye reach to the chin,
And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,

The boys’ choir makes its first appearance in this setting, which incorporates the text’s whistling by the “happy, dirty, driving boy.” The boys sing the Peele poem to the accompaniment of winds, tuba, and tambourine; the soprano, singing the Clare text, is accompanied on violins.

  1. The Morning Star (On May Morning, John Milton, 1608–74) (mixed chorus, brass (without tuba), bells, timpani, and bass drum)

Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East . . .

The mixed chorus takes over for this setting, accompanied by brass (without tuba), bells, timpani, and bass drum. Listen for the “morning bells, both real (chimes) and imagined (in the bell-like, swinging dotted-quarters alternating in the trumpets and trombones).” [ASO Essay 4]

Part II

  1. Welcome, Maids of Honour (To Violets, Robert Herrick, 1591–1674) (contralto soloist, wind quintet of piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, strings (without violins), and harps)

Welcome Maids of Honour,
You doe bring
In the Spring

Lower register strings accompany the contralto, with graceful interjections from a quintet of winds and two harps.

  1. Waters above (The Shower, Henry Vaughan, 1622–95) (tenor soloist and violins)

Waters above! Eternal springs!
The dew that silvers the Dove’s wings!

In this setting, the tenor soloist is accompanied only by the violins, which play sul ponticello (near the bridge). The setting is in 5/4 time.

  1. Out on the Lawn I lie in Bed (W. H. Auden, 1907–73, four stanzas from the poem A Summer Night) (contralto soloist, mixed chorus, winds, brass, and bass drum)

Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead
In the windless night of June;

The mixed chorus, unaccompanied, opens the setting, with winds, brass, and bass drum entering on a quiet chord. Alto flute and bass clarinet emerge to accompany the contralto soloist. As the setting progresses, other winds take up the accompanying lines, and shifts in orchestral color and rhythm work subtle changes in mood. Orchestral blasts and brass volleys disrupt the meditative atmosphere on the words, “Where Poland draws her eastern bow.” The setting slowly dies away, and the chorus sings the final notes on “closed lips.”

Part III

  1. When will my May come? (Richard Barnefield, 1574–1620, excerpted from The Teares of an Affectionate Shepheard Sicke for Love, or the Complaint of Daphnis for the Love of Ganimede, pp. 10-14) (tenor soloist, harps, and strings without double bass)

When will my May come, that I may embrace thee?

Two harps accompany the tenor soloist. The strings open the movement and interject with agitated passages throughout.

  1. Fair and fair (Song of Oenone and Paris, George Peele, 1556–96) (soprano and tenor soloists, winds, and strings without double bass)

Fair and fair, and twice so fair,
As fair as any may be;
The fairest shepherd on our green,
A love for any lady.

Fair and fair begins without pause (attacca senza pausa) after the previous setting. The soprano, accompanied by flute, oboe, and plucked upper strings, opens the setting. The tenor follows, accompanied by bassoon, clarinet, and plucked lower strings. Listen for the “double duet”—a canon between the soprano and tenor and a canon between their accompanying instruments. [ASO Essay 6]

  1. Sound the Flute! (Spring, William Blake, 1757–1827, from Songs of Innocence and Experience) (mixed chorus, boys’ choir, winds, brass, and strings)

Sound the flute!
Now it’s mute.

Listen for the brass evocations of percussion instruments in this percussionless setting. The tenor and bass voices and brass take the first verse; the sopranos, altos, and winds take the second; the boys’ choir and strings come in on the third; and the choruses and instruments come together for the last verse.

Part IV

Finale (London, to thee I do present, Francis Beaumont, 1584–1616/John Fletcher, 1579–1625, excerpted from Knight of the Burning Pestle, Interlude Four, and Sumer is i-cumen in, Anonymous, 13th Century) (all soloists, mixed chorus, boys’ choir, cow horn, and orchestra, including timpani and other percussion: xylophone, whip, block, castanets, side drum, bass drum, cymbals)

London, to thee I do present the merry month of May;
Let each true subject be content to hear me what I say:
With gilded staff and crossèd scarf, the May-lord here I stand.

How I wish there existed a video (perhaps there is?) of Britten conducting the Spring Symphony. As I listen to the finale’s opening, with its buoyant waltz and cow horn announcing the May-lord, I can’t resist a grin. Everyone—soloists, chorus and choir, and orchestra—gets into the act. The boys’ choir, full throttle, summons the next season with Sumer is i-cumen in, and the May-lord proclaims:

. . . God save our King, and send his country peace,
And root out treason from the land! and so, my friends, I cease.

The finale ends on a single, resounding C-Major chord. Blooming with joy, I’d say.

Morris Dancers, artist and date unknown

Morris Dancers, artist and date unknown


Credits: The images in the post may be found here, herehere, here (The Nursery images), and here, respectively. Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text, with the page number, if available.








Contemporaneous Turns Five with a Flourish: Curt Barnes and Prufrock Report

David Bloom conducts Contemporaneous at DiMenna © 2015 Dominica Eriksen. Used with kind permission.

David Bloom conducts Contemporaneous at DiMenna © 2015 Dominica Eriksen. Used with kind permission.

On March 7, 2015, Contemporaneous reached a new milestone: the ensemble turned five years old, and it did so with a flourish. Curt Barnes and Prufrock report: Continue reading

Seeking Shostakovich . . . in the Verses of Michelangelo

The Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo

The Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo

Some kind of spring has broken in my brain. I have not written a note since the Fifteenth Symphony. That is a terrible state of affairs for me.

—Dmitri Shostakovich,
Letter to Isaak Glikman,
January 16, 1973
[Glikman 188]

In the summer of 1974, not long after claiming he hadn’t “a single musical thought in his head,” Dmitri Shostakovich wrote to Isaak Glikman, “I have been composing quite a lot recently.” [Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, 1941–1975 323, no. 56 and 196]  In 1971, Shostakovich had completed Symphony No. 15, his last. At the time, his final string quartets, the 14th (1973) and 15th (1974), and his last work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano (1975, the year he died), were yet to come, as were three works for voice, including the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, first written for bass and piano (op. 145, 1974) and subsequently orchestrated (op. 145a, 1975). Continue reading

On Creatively Misreading Peter Cole’s The Invention of Influence

Invention_of_Influence_300_448. . . thinking we know where we’re going and then
getting somewhere, despite our intention.

—Peter Cole, from Actual Angels

I was tempted into reading poet Peter Cole’s book, The Invention of Influence, by a review in Jacket2.  From the get-go, the signs augured that I’d be in well over my head. Cole is, among other things, “a translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetries, modern and medieval” [Jacket 2], about which I know nothing. But I was intrigued by the idea that his work with translation so powerfully informed his poetry—that Cole was, in this sense among others, a Pasternakian sponge:

[Cole] practices writing as a form of translation, as a “being between” fixed places, with the poet as a transponder, not an orator, a conduit, not a usurper.” [Jacket 2]

I don’t have “proper” receptors for understanding this book of poems, but I’m attracted by its ideas and methods and impelled to attempt to “make it mine.” Here are three examples of my admittedly peculiar process. Continue reading

Guest Post: Brian Long on the Art of Conducting

Susanna Mälkki, Chief Conductor-elect, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (2016-19), photograph courtesy MITO SettembreMusica

Susanna Mälkki, Chief Conductor-elect, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (2016-19), photograph courtesy MITO SettembreMusica

What have orchestra conductors ever done for us? Continue reading